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Recruitment selection techniques

Author: Claire Watt

Summary

  • Employers need to ensure that the right people with the right skills are recruited for roles within their organisation. Recruitment selection involves two main processes: shortlisting candidates and assessing candidates against job-related criteria to make a final selection decision. (See What is recruitment selection?)
  • Effective selection is essential to recruit people with the right skills and experience to drive the organisation forward. Employers spend a lot of time and money recruiting new staff, so it is important that they follow good practice and get it right first time. (See The business case for effective selection)
  • Employers should consider the "reliability" and "validity" of the methods they use as part of the selection process. This means that the selection methods should be consistent and measure what they are intended to measure. (See The reliability and validity of different selection tools)
  • There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to selection and employers should choose the combination of selection tools most appropriate for the role. (See Choosing between different selection tools)
  • Employers should ensure that the opportunity for self-selection by applicants runs throughout the recruitment and selection process, and that there is effective two-way communication between the employer and the candidate. (See Self-selection by applicants)
  • Competencies can underpin each stage of the selection process, from preparation of the job description and person specification to shortlisting, testing and interviewing. (See Competency-based selection)
  • Screening is the first stage of the selection process and is particularly important in cases of volume recruitment. Employers need to screen out unsuitable candidates so that shortlisting can commence. (See Screening candidates)
  • Shortlisting against the job-related criteria is a key early stage of the selection process. If the employer carries out the shortlisting stage effectively, this means that it will need to interview and test only the most suitable candidates for the role. (See Shortlisting candidates)
  • Telephone interviews can be used at any stage of the selection process, but are particularly useful when the employer wants to screen out the least suitable candidates for the role. (See Telephone interviewing)
  • Employers commonly use interviews as part of the selection process. They should use a structured interview format to help avoid unintentional bias creeping into the process. (See Selection interviewing)
  • Many employers use psychometric testing to support the selection process by testing candidates' ability, aptitude or personality. The employer should ensure that tests are fair, effective and administered by a trained professional. (See Psychometric tests)
  • Work-sample tests can provide the employer with a powerful prediction of future performance because they allow assessment of candidates performing the same or similar tasks to those performed in the role for which they have applied. (See Work-samples tests)
  • A presentation exercise could be useful if the employer wishes to assess candidates' verbal communication skills. (See Presentations)
  • An assessment centre involves the employer using a range of selection tools to assess candidates. Assessment centres can be expensive but, if well designed and administered, can produce high levels of validity. (See Assessment centres)
  • If used in the right way, recruitment agencies can provide valuable support to employers in their search for the right candidates. (See Using agencies for selection)
  • The employer needs to decide which individuals are responsible for the final selection decision and how they should make this important decision. (See Making the final selection decision)
  • Employers need to be aware of the possibility of discrimination occurring during all stages of the selection process, and make every attempt to mitigate this risk. (See Equal opportunities in selection)
  • Employers should provide job-related feedback to unsuccessful candidates. (See Providing feedback to unsuccessful candidates)
  • Employers should keep accurate records of the selection process, including test results and decisions, as evidence for possible future employment tribunal claims. (See Record-keeping)

Overview

This section of the XpertHR good practice manual examines the different recruitment selection techniques that are available to employers to select the most suitable candidate for a vacancy. It discusses: what recruitment selection is; the business case for effective selection; the validity of different selection tools; self-selection by applicants; competency-based selection; screening candidates; shortlisting candidates; telephone interviewing for screening; selection interviewing; psychometric tests; work-sample tests; assessment centres; using agencies for selection; making a final selection decision; equal opportunities in selection; providing feedback to candidates; and record-keeping.

What is recruitment selection?

Employers need to ensure that the right people with the right skills are recruited for roles within the organisation. Recruitment selection involves two main processes: shortlisting candidates and assessing candidates against the job-related criteria for the role to make a final selection decision.

Selection is a two-way process: the employer should assess whether or not the candidate is suitable for the role while the candidate should decide whether or not the role and organisation represent the right next step for him or her. The employer should ensure that there is effective two-way communication throughout each stage of the recruitment process so that it runs smoothly.

There are a wide range of selection tools that organisations can use when recruiting new employees, including:

  • self-selection by candidates;
  • competency-based selection;
  • candidate screening;
  • shortlisting of candidates;
  • telephone interviews;
  • selection interviews;
  • psychometric tests;
  • work-sample tests;
  • presentations;
  • assessment centres; and
  • recruitment agencies and headhunters.

Employers should ensure that selection decisions are based on job-related criteria that are applied consistently and fairly to all candidates. They should also ensure that discrimination does not creep into any stage of the recruitment and selection process and that their vacancies are open to a diverse range of potential candidates.

The business case for effective selection

Recruitment selection is a fundamental part of HR practice. It is vital to the success of their organisation that employers make the best selection decisions and recruit people with the right skills and experience to drive the organisation forward. Employers spend a lot of time and money recruiting employees, so it is essential that they follow good practice and get it right first time. Selecting the most suitable candidate for the role can have a positive impact on the performance of the organisation, but getting it wrong can be costly and detrimental to the organisation in a number of ways, for example higher staff turnover and lower employee morale.

Choosing the most appropriate selection techniques and tools for each vacancy is essential to the success of the selection process and helps to ensure the most cost-effective use of the recruitment budget. Some selection methods represent better value for money than others, for example recruitment agencies are often expensive but can be cost effective if the employer is seeking an individual for a specialised or senior role.

How organisations communicate and interact with prospective employees via the recruitment and selection process is important. The recruiting organisation should aim to portray itself as a good, organised employer. Word of mouth is a powerful communication tool and, if just one person has a bad experience during the recruitment and selection process, the individual could talk about the organisation to other potential candidates or customers in a negative way. Therefore, the employer should ensure that all candidates, including those who are unsuccessful, have a positive experience with the organisation. Disappointment should never turn into dissatisfaction, so it is important that candidates feel that they were considered carefully and fairly and that the organisation communicated with them in a timely and professional manner.

Following good practice when selecting candidates will help the employer to ensure that it:

  • shortlists the most suitable pool of candidates for the role;
  • uses the most appropriate and cost-effective selection techniques for the vacancy;
  • avoids using selection techniques that could disadvantage candidates with a protected characteristic;
  • appoints the best candidate for the role; and
  • provides both successful and unsuccessful candidates with a positive and professional image of the organisation.

Selection should be based on the job-related criteria for the role. The recruiting organisation should develop the job-related criteria as part of the pre-recruitment process. It is important to weight the job-related criteria as on most occasions different criteria will have different levels of importance in the role, and this should be reflected when measuring candidates against the criteria. For example, the employer may wish to assign a weighting of "10" to the most important criterion and allocate a weighting of between "1" and "9" to all other criteria according to their relative importance when matched against the top item.

The reliability and validity of different selection tools

When choosing between different selection tools, employers need to consider the "reliability" and "validity" of each selection method.

"Reliability" in the context of selection concerns consistency and stability, and the extent to which the results of a test could be influenced by chance factors. Selection tests should produce similar (if not identical) results when a candidate takes the same test on several occasions. For example, if a candidate takes a selection test one day and scores highly in relation to "decision-making", the same candidate should score highly in that competency if he or she takes the same test on other days.

"Validity" concerns whether or not a selection test measures what it is supposed to measure, has good predictive quality and provides the employer with an accurate indication of how the individual will perform in the role.

As well as ensuring that the selection tools that it uses are reliable and valid, the employer should ensure that the tools are not open to bias or fraud. "Bias" means that the test could put certain candidates at a disadvantage, for example female or disabled candidates. For example, the employer may need to allow a candidate who has a learning disability extra time to complete a selection test. "Fraud" means that the candidate is able to cheat when completing a selection test, for example if the employer leaves the candidate unsupervised, which could enable him or her to use a calculator for a numerical assessment test.

Choosing between different selection tools

The choice and cost of selection methods should be appropriate to the role to which the employer is recruiting, for example an expensive assessment centre may not be suitable for a low-skilled vacancy but could be cost effective if used to select a person for a senior post. A work-sample test, where the candidate is required to perform tasks that are similar to those that are performed in the job, may be more appropriate for a lower-skilled role as it is less expensive and enables the employer to see the candidate in action. There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to selection and the choice and design of selection techniques should depend on the requirements for the particular vacancy.

Self-selection by applicants

Self-selection occurs when an applicant decides not to apply for a job or withdraws from the recruitment process on the realisation that he or she is not a suitable candidate for the role. If the employer has in place well-prepared job-related criteria and a realistic job description and person specification against which applicants can assess their skills and experience, an applicant is more likely to realise that the vacancy does not match his or her needs at an earlier stage of the recruitment process.

It may be tempting for the recruiting organisation to present the job as more interesting or exciting than it actually is. Although this approach may attract more candidates, it will only lead to disappointment if the role does not live up to the expectations of the successful candidate when in post. It is far better for the organisation to provide candidates with a realistic job preview at every stage of the recruitment and selection process, for example work-sample tests should reflect tasks performed in the job on a day-to-day basis. To give an example, as part of its selection process for support staff, one NHS trust invites candidates to spend half a day at the trust so that they can meet members of the team and gain an in-depth insight into what the job entails.

Selection should be a two-way process between the employer and the candidate. The employer wants to appoint the right person for the role. It also wants the new starter to settle quickly into the role, perform to a high standard and develop a commitment to the organisation. The candidate, meanwhile, wants to make the right career move, have a high level of job satisfaction and be happy working for the employer. The employer should provide the candidate with relevant information about the role and organisation so that the candidate can make an informed decision about whether or not he or she wants to work for the employer.

It may be frustrating for the employer if a candidate withdraws midway during the selection process, but self-selection at this stage is still preferable to the candidate starting employment and later realising that this was the wrong decision. The earlier in the recruitment and selection process that an unsuitable candidate decides not to pursue an application, the less impact the decision is likely to have on the recruiting organisation.

Competency-based selection

A "competency" is a behaviour or skill that an individual needs to exhibit to perform the job effectively. For example, one competency for a managerial role might be: "Leadership: provides clear leadership consistent with the organisational strategy".

Employers that rely on competencies to underpin HR processes often develop competency frameworks to reflect the generic requirements that they have of employees in terms of behaviour, skills and knowledge. Competency frameworks vary in complexity but most list behaviours that the employer views as essential for an employee to perform to a high standard in the role. The employer can apply a competency framework to various HR processes including the recruitment and selection process.

For competency-based selection, competencies are not a specific technique but a means of establishing the criteria on which to base some or all of the selection methods. Competencies can be used throughout each stage of the recruitment and selection process, from preparation of the job-related criteria to shortlisting, testing and interviewing.

Employers should ensure that they communicate competencies to potential applicants via the job advertisement so that the candidate can decide if he or she possesses the competencies for the role and will be able to demonstrate this during the application and selection stages.

When using tests, or designing tests to use, as part of the selection process, the employer should ensure that the competencies identified for the role are used as the basis for the tests and that the tests measure the extent to which the candidates possess the required behaviours. For example, if the employer is designing a work-sample test for a customer-service adviser and one of the competencies for this role is "relationship management", the test needs to measure the candidate's competency level in relation to the definition of relationship management.

When designing interview questions, the employer should ask questions that will assess whether or not the candidate can provide evidence of the desired behaviours in his or her answers. For example, to assess whether or not a candidate can demonstrate evidence of a competency relating to teamwork, the recruiting organisation could ask the interviewee to "give me an example of when you have worked effectively as part of a team". Typically, the recruiting organisation will design several questions to help assess one competency. The organisation should score the candidate against each competency, with each competency weighted according to its importance in the role.

Where a selection process uses a combination of assessment methods, each competency could be measured more than once using the different assessment methods. For example, a competency relating to "teamwork" could be measured in a group exercise and in a selection interview. This means that there will often be more than one rating for each competency and the assessors should combine these ratings when making a final appointment decision. The assessors can produce a single rating for each candidate, either by calculating the average rating for each competency or by discussing the scores for each competency and reaching a consensus on the final competency rating.

Screening candidates

Screening or sifting applications is the first selection step that the employer should take after it receives the applications for a vacancy. Screening is particularly important in cases of volume recruitment because there may be a large number of applicants who do not meet the basic criteria for the role, for example if they do not possess an essential qualification for the role. Reducing the number of applicants down to a manageable volume means that the employer can focus time and energy on investigating the most suitable candidates during the shortlisting process.

There are a number of different screening methods available to employers. The first screening method involves the application (either an application form or CV), which should provide specific information that the recruiter can easily and quickly assess. For example, an essential job-specific criterion for a facilities manager could be to hold a particular health and safety qualification, and if this is not evident in the application, the employer can quickly screen out this candidate.

The employer can use online tools to conduct the initial screening process. For example, an automated system or online questionnaire could ask candidates to enter specific information or answer multiple-choice questions. The automated system could process the applicants' responses and inform them whether or not they have been accepted on to the next stage of the selection process, saving the employer considerable time. An online screening tool is particularly useful for volume recruitment, for example as part of a graduate recruitment campaign.

The employer can also screen applications by using a telephone interview whereby it asks candidates a series of questions from a script designed to establish whether or not they meet certain aspects of the shortlisting criteria, for example experience of working in a customer-facing role for a customer service position. Typically, screening forms a second screening stage after the employer has carried out an initial screening exercise to filter out candidates who do not meet the basic qualifying criteria for the role. It could be too time consuming for the employer to telephone a large number of applicants as part of an initial screening exercise.

Telephone interviews at the screening stage can take different forms but typically involve a brief assessment of applicants' suitability for the post and a 20-minute telephone interview should be sufficient. However, some employers may wish to carry out a longer and more rigorous screening exercise, for example if the vacancy is for a senior or specialist role, or if the applicant pool is not large.

The employer can use interviewers to conduct the telephone interview or applicants can be taken through a menu on an automated system. It is good practice when screening by telephone for the employer to ask the same questions of each applicant, although it may need to ask different follow-up questions of some applicants depending on what information they provide during the interview. Some employers may want to use a telephone interview to explore any disparities in a candidate's application, for example establishing or confirming recent employment dates, or clarifying gaps in his or her employment history.

Shortlisting candidates

Once the screening process is complete, the employer needs to shortlist the candidates to reduce the number of applications to a number that it is feasible to interview or test. Shortlisting is a key stage of the selection process and, if conducted effectively, means that the employer will apply the chosen range of selection tests only to the most suitable candidates for the vacancy.

It is good practice for the employer to ask all candidates to complete an application form when applying for a role rather than submitting a CV. As well as ensuring that the recruiting organisation gives all candidates the same opportunity to provide information, this approach makes shortlisting easier for the employer because the individuals responsible for the shortlisting will be able to compare relevant information on the forms.

An application form can also have a detachable front sheet so that personal information, for example name and age, can be removed before the shortlisting stage to reduce the likelihood of discrimination creeping into the process. However, even where this information is not given to the shortlisting panel, discrimination can still be a factor. Employers should be aware that, if they focus on the number of years' experience that a candidate has rather than his or her breadth of experience and level of responsibility gained in his or employment, their actions could be perceived as discriminatory on the basis of age (see Equal opportunities in selection).

Employers that use social media to assess the suitability of potential new recruits need to take care not to discriminate unlawfully. Often, an individual's social media page will contain personal information relating to characteristics such as race, religion, sexual orientation and age. These characteristics are protected under the Equality Act 2010. Where an employer views such information about a job candidate, this may influence (consciously or unconsciously) the employer's decision. If the employer rejects the candidate (whether or not the information on social media has a bearing on this decision) the individual might bring a claim of unlawful discrimination to an employment tribunal arguing that the real reason for the rejection was the protected characteristic.

In essence, employers should use social media to investigate candidates only if there is a sound reason for doing so and one that is relevant to the recruitment decision (for example, social media use may be relevant to the job). Employers should also inform job applicants if they propose to look at their social media page as part of the recruitment process and allow them to respond to their interpretation of the content.

By the shortlisting stage, all of the candidates should meet the essential criteria for the role, because these requirements should have been verified during the initial screening process. To decide which candidates should move on to the next stage of the selection process, the employer should score the information provided in the application forms against the job-related criteria for the vacancy. Rating the candidates helps to ensure consistency and objectivity, and should reduce the volume of applicants to a smaller, more manageable pool of the most suitable candidates to take forward to the next stage.

It is good practice for more than one individual to carry out the shortlisting process to ensure objectivity and reduce the risk of personal bias. The individuals responsible for shortlisting should carry out the process on an individual basis, to ensure objectivity, and subsequently compare their scores for each candidate by holding a shortlisting meeting. The employer should retain records of the panel's decisions and the reasons for them (see Record-keeping).

Telephone interviewing

Employers can use telephone interviews at any stage of the selection process. The format of the interview could range from basic questions on the essential and desirable criteria for the role to competency-based questions or role-play exercises. Two of the main ways in which organisations use telephone interviews during the selection process are as a method of screening out unsuitable candidates (see Screening candidates) and to gather additional information from candidates.

Telephone interviewing as a method of screening candidates is particularly useful if the vacancy relates to a telephone-based role, for example a customer service adviser. A telephone interview provides the interviewer with the opportunity to hear the candidate's telephone communication skills first-hand.

The main disadvantages of telephone interviews are the lack of non-verbal communication, for example facial expressions, and the difficulty in building up a rapport with the candidate. This interview format can also disadvantage individuals with hearing or speech difficulties and employers should be careful to make any reasonable adjustments that are necessary.

It may be tempting for the employer to approach telephone interviews informally but it should apply the same good practice principles to telephone interviewing as it does to face-to-face interviewing. This will help to ensure that the interviews filter out the unsuitable candidates from the selection process and to avoid discrimination (see Selection interviewing).

Telephone interviews can be conducted on a one-to-one basis or via an automated system whereby the recruiting organisation uses multiple-choice questions to screen out unsuitable candidates.

To ensure that they conduct telephone interviews in the best way, employers should:

  • provide training for interviewers on how to conduct telephone interviews where there is an absence of non-verbal communication;
  • pre-arrange interviews so that the candidate is not caught off-guard and can arrange for somewhere quiet to speak;
  • hold them in a suitable room with no interruptions or background noise;
  • develop a structured format with a script to help ensure consistency and objectivity, with the same questions asked of all candidates, but bearing in mind that the interviewer may need to ask follow-up questions of some candidates, for example to clarify information provided in the application;
  • ensure that interviewers are aware of the possibility of discrimination creeping into the process, for example if the candidate has an accent or speech difficulty;
  • inform candidates of what to expect from the telephone interview so that they can prepare and perform to the best of their ability; and
  • take thorough interview notes and inform the candidate that there may be periods of silence while the interviewer is writing up the notes.

Selection interviewing

A selection interview is a controlled conversation during which the employer aims to gather information from the candidate to predict whether or not he or she would perform well in the role. It is a two-way process and provides an opportunity for the candidate to meet the employer, learn more about the role and decide whether or not the job is right for him or her. A face-to-face interview is the most widely used selection tool and it would be unusual for an employer to make an appointment decision without some form of interview as part of the selection process.

Although commonly used, interviews are sometimes criticised for being unreliable and a poor predictor of the candidate's future performance in the role. If an interview is not effective as a selection tool, this is often due to factors such as poor interview design and lack of skilled interviewers rather than the interview's failing as a selection tool itself. Interviews can be open to subjectivity and potential bias if the interviewers are untrained because it is easy for an interviewer to form a positive or negative impression of the candidate early in the interview and spend the rest of the interview finding information to support this view. Having more than one trained interviewer, or a panel of trained interviewers, can help to reduce this type of bias. Adopting a structured interview format can also help.

A well-prepared interview, based on the competencies required for the job, can be very effective if conducted by skilled interviewers. Interviews allow the employer to have a structured, face-to-face discussion with the candidate and are relatively cheap to administer. However, due to the potential pitfalls of interviewing, employers should not rely on interviews as the sole selection technique but should use them in combination with other selection methods.

The different interview formats

Interviews can be held in a one-to-one format or tandem basis or can be conducted by a panel of several interviewers. The advantages of one-to-one interviews are that the candidate can feel more relaxed and therefore perform better. However, the risk of subjectivity increases with only one interviewer. A tandem interview involving two interviewers can help to reduce the potential for bias influencing the selection decision. A tandem interview format also provides an opportunity for two individuals to question the candidate on different job-related criteria, for example the line manager could focus on the duties of the role while a member of the HR team could ask more generic questions, such as those about working as part of a team. A panel interview with three or more interviewers, normally from different parts of the organisation, can greatly increase the reliability of the interview process by reducing the risk of bias. This type of interview also enables several individuals to meet the candidate at the same time and question him or her about different aspects of the job. On the negative side, a panel interview is more daunting for the candidate, can create less rapport and can result in the candidate not performing to the best of his or her ability. Employers should take particular care to prepare well for panel interviews, because the large number of interviewers can make it difficult for them to control the interview. A panel interview can also seem stilted or disjointed if several individuals are asking questions in no logical order.

Structured and semi-structured interviewing

Interviews can be structured or semi-structured. A structured approach can increase the validity and reliability of the interview because it involves the interviewer asking standard questions of all candidates. This allows every candidate to have the same opportunity to talk about his or her skills and experience in the same areas, which enables the recruiter to make direct comparisons when rating candidates. This approach supports a more systematic scoring system and reduces the risk of bias. Although structured interviews lead to more reliable selection decisions, this format can make the interview feel a bit false and sterile. An alternative is to use a semi-structured interview format, which sets out the broad topics or questions to be covered in the interview but provides the interviewer(s) with the flexibility to ask follow-up questions within these broad areas. This approach can help the interview to flow more like a conversation but can encourage less systematic scoring. A semi-structured interview can lack consistency and fairness, for example if one candidate was not given the same opportunity to respond to a question as another candidate.

Designing the interview questions

When designing the interview questions, the employer can use several different types of interview techniques. Examples of open questions traditionally asked by employers include: "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" and "Where do you see yourself in five years?" This kind of vague questioning, which is not based on job-related criteria, is unlikely to yield responses that can help the employer to make a valid assessment of the candidate's suitability for the post. However, using "behavioural" or "situational" questioning techniques can help the employer to gather more concrete and reliable information from the candidate.

In a behavioural interview, the employer decides which skills or competencies the jobholder requires to perform well in the post and asks questions to find out if the candidate possesses these skills or competencies. Behavioural interviewing uses questions that ask the candidate how he or she has acted in the past in a specific situation rather than how the candidate might behave in this type of situation in the future. For example, the interviewer could ask: "Can you tell me about a time when you had to deal with a tight deadline?" The candidate should draw on past experiences to explain how he or she dealt with a real situation; this should help the interviewer to assess how the candidate may perform in the future in a similar situation. The rationale is that how the candidate behaved in the past is a good predictor of how he or she will behave in the future, and for this reason, behavioural interviewing can have high validity as a selection tool.

Another option is to use "situational" or "hypothetical" questions, where the employer asks the candidate questions about how he or she would act in a certain work situation. In many cases, situational interviews involve questions on how the candidate might solve a problem or handle difficult situations in the workplace. An example of a situational interview question is: "If you disagreed with a decision that your line manager made, how would you handle it?" This type of question can be useful for candidates who do not have much work experience, for example graduates, but the answer is unlikely to provide such reliable information as behavioural questioning, in response to which candidates have to provide concrete examples of certain behaviours that they have exhibited in the past.

The interviewer(s) can use different questioning techniques at different stages of the interview. For example, at the beginning of the interview it could be appropriate for the interviewer(s) to ask a couple of unstructured, informal questions to put the candidate at ease. The interview should then take a more structured format and rely primarily on behavioural questioning as this is the most reliable way for the interviewer(s) to predict how the candidate will perform in the role. However, the interviewer(s) may also wish to incorporate hypothetical questions during the interview, for example if the candidate does not have past experience on which to rely for some areas of questioning.

Second interviews

Some employers conduct a second face-to-face interview with candidates as part of their selection process. Some employers hold a second selection interview with all shortlisted candidates, while others invite for interview only those candidates who have been successful following the first interview, thereby reducing the candidate pool during the selection process.

There are several reasons why the recruiting organisation may conduct a second selection interview, for example it may wish to:

  • gain a "second opinion" on candidates, by including different interviewers on the interview panel;
  • encourage the involvement of more senior members of staff in the selection process, with senior management having a key input into final appointment decisions;
  • provide colleagues or managers with an opportunity to assess individuals with whom they will be working;
  • focus more closely on the technical aspects of the role; or
  • follow up on any issues arising from the first interview that were not fully explored at the time.

The second interview could involve the employer covering the same areas that it covered in the first interview, but asking more probing questions to gain greater insight into the candidate's suitability for the post. Alternatively, the second interview could form a new set of questions designed to assess different aspects of the candidate's technical ability, competencies or potential fit with the organisation. It could also provide a more in-depth opportunity for the candidate to assess his or her attitudes about the employer, and whether or not the role represents the right career move.

One bank conducts a second interview as a third and final stage of its selection process for graduate-entry management trainees, following a screening exercise and an assessment centre that includes a first interview. A panel of interviewers, comprising an HR representative, a senior manager and a financial services specialist, conducts the second interview. Its purpose is to ask more probing questions on the technical aspects of financial services, and for the senior manager to assess the candidates' potential fit with the organisation, including their career aspirations and expectations of promotion. The HR representative attends both the first and second interviews to help ensure continuity, and that any issues raised at the first interview are fully explored in the second one.

Whatever the format of the second interview, the employer should follow the good practice principles in conducting the interview. There is less risk of subjectivity creeping into the process if a panel of interviewers, rather than one interviewer, conducts the interview. A structured approach, whereby the employer asks standard questions of all candidates, helps to ensure consistency and objectivity.

Training interviewers

Employers need to make sure that all interviewers are trained in how to design and ask interview questions so that the interview process is as reliable and fair as possible. The training should cover methods of scoring candidates' responses and the importance of avoiding interview bias and any form of potential discrimination.

Psychometric tests

Psychometric testing is another tool that employers can use as part of the selection process to help select the best candidate for the role. Psychometric tests are objective, standardised tools that should be administered and scored by a trained professional in a controlled and consistent manner. Psychometric tests should not be used in isolation but in conjunction with other selection tools, for example interviews and presentations.

Types of psychometric tests

There are two main types of psychometric tests:

  • Ability and aptitude tests: There is a subtle difference between ability and aptitude tests. Ability tests assess an individual's current performance, while aptitude tests assess an individual's potential to perform with the benefit of adequate training. There are different categories of ability tests. General ability tests measure overall level of intelligence as a general trait, usually through critical, non-verbal or abstract reasoning. There are also specific ability tests, for example verbal and numerical reasoning.
  • Personality tests: Personality tests measure aspects of personality and how the individual may behave in different situations. Unlike other job-related requirements relating to areas such as qualifications, skills and experience, the behavioural traits and personality of a candidate can be difficult for an employer to assess. Therefore, personality tests can add a useful dimension to the selection process. There are questionnaires on the market that measure either personality type or traits and are intended to match individuals to jobs that suit their character. There are many types of personality tests and a sample item on a personality test could ask respondents to rate the degree to which they agree with the statement "I talk to a lot of different people at parties" by using a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Employers can use personality tests as a tool to identify areas for further probing at interview or to highlight possible development needs of the candidate if he or she is appointed.

Traditionally, recruiters administered psychometric tests in a pencil and paper format. However, recruiters are increasingly using tests in electronic form. This means that the tests can be quick, easy and relatively cheap to integrate into any stage of the selection process.

Pros and cons of psychometric tests

There are many benefits to using psychometric tests to complement other selection tools, for example:

  • tests can be quick and easy to administer;
  • test scores can be calculated and reports produced quickly;
  • tests provide an objective tool for assessing the suitability of the candidate for the role;
  • tests can provide a good indication of how well the individual will perform in the role and the way he or she will behave in the workplace, for example whether or not the candidate will be a directive manager or one who likes to delegate; and
  • most tests can be taken unsupervised, online and remotely.

The disadvantages of using psychometric tests include:

  • the need to have a trained professional who is able to administer, score and provide feedback on test results;
  • the considerable cost involved if the recruiting organisation commissions bespoke tests from a third-party provider; and
  • the risk of bias and discrimination, for example if the employer does not make a reasonable adjustment for a candidate with a learning disability to take a written test by allowing him or her extra time to complete the test.

How should recruiters choose, communicate and administer psychometric tests?

When choosing which psychometric test to use for a particular role, the employer should ensure that it uses a credible test supplier and that the supplier has investigated the technical properties of the test, for example the test's reliability and validity, the correct administration procedures, how to score the test, how to interpret the test and how to provide feedback to candidates. Reputable test suppliers should be able to demonstrate that they have performed these activities. To find out the procedures that a test supplier carries out for its tests, employers can look at the information supplied on its website or talk to the test supplier. The employer can also approach other employers that may have used tests supplied by the test provider, to find out how effective they were for selection.

The administrator of the psychometric test should be a trained professional who holds the relevant test-user competence certificate. The administrator could be an individual provided by the test supplier or an internal member of staff who has the necessary training and certification. This approach ensures the proficient and responsible use of tests, including the administration, scoring and reporting of the tests. No unqualified or untrained individual should be allowed unsupervised access to psychometric tests. The test supplier should provide detailed instructions on the use and administration of the test, and the trained professional should administer the test as instructed. The test administrator may also be involved in the choice of test(s).

If a psychometric test forms part of the selection process, the employer should inform candidates:

  • about the purpose of the test and how it will be administered;
  • that the test results will be used as part of the decision-making process in conjunction with other selection tools;
  • who will have access to the test results and how the results will be stored and disposed of;
  • that the test results will not be used for any purpose other than that communicated to candidates;
  • about the confidentiality arrangements regarding the test results; and
  • that feedback will be offered to candidates on their performance in the test.

When administering a psychometric test in-house, employers should ensure that all candidates:

  • receive the same, standard instructions by the test supplier;
  • take the test in a suitable environment, for example in a quiet room with adequate light, a comfortable temperature and no interruptions;
  • complete the test without help from others and without the use of equipment unless specified as part of the test; and
  • are given adequate time to complete the test and, where there is a time limit, understand what this is.

One of the advantages of psychometric tests is that the employer can administer online tests remotely, but this means that some of the guidance that it provides to remote test-takers will differ from the instructions provided to candidates who take their test in-house. For example, the employer should still issue the standard test instructions to candidates but it can only encourage candidates to take the test in a suitable environment and complete the test without the help of others. It will not be possible for the employer to ensure this.

Work-sample tests

Work-sample tests are based on the premise that the best predictor of future behaviour is the behaviour exhibited when an individual is placed in a comparable situation. A work-sample test requires the candidate to carry out tasks that are similar to those that would be performed in the actual role. A work-sample test could appear as a series of short questions, for example: "What would you do in this situation?" or it could involve a more complex scenario that the candidate needs to analyse.

Because it should contain a sample of the actual work that will be performed in the job, a work-sample test can have high validity and be a powerful predictor of job performance. The assessor can assess the candidate's behaviour, including how he or she works under time pressure, how the candidate prioritises the actions involved in the test and his or her level of accuracy.

However, work-sample tests can be time consuming to administer as, typically, the recruiting organisation has to administer the test to one candidate at a time, under supervision. Work-sample tests can be less helpful where the role involves completing work over a number of days or weeks.

As with other selection methods, when developing a work-sample test the employer should base it on the job-related criteria for the role. How the candidate completes the test should show the employer how he or she performs against the criteria. For example, for a personal assistant role where the three most important job-related criteria are "written communication skills", "accuracy" and "organisational skills", the work-sample test could involve drafting a letter, entering expenses into a spreadsheet and a prioritisation exercise, all under timed conditions. Another example is a simulation test where candidates are provided with descriptions of work situations and several possible responses. The candidate is required to state his or her most likely, and unlikely, responses.

The employer needs to decide how to score candidates' performance in the test. A work-sample test could involve giving candidates several exercises to complete within a limited time period, and assessing candidates against the number of work samples that they complete by the deadline, and the number and type of errors that they make. The employer could consider asking a high performer currently in that role to take the test so that candidates can be assessed in comparison to this performance benchmark.

Presentations

The use of presentations during the selection process can provide the employer with useful information about candidates, for example the standard of their verbal and written communication skills, their ability to work under pressure and the level of their strategic thinking. Typically, the employer gives candidates advance notice of the presentation topic so that they can prepare the presentation in advance of the selection day. Alternatively, the employer can give candidates the presentation topic and a certain amount of time to prepare the presentation on the selection day. If the candidate is required to prepare the presentation on the day, the employer can form an accurate impression of how the candidate works under pressure, and ensure that the presentation is the candidate's own work.

Presentations can either focus on a topic of interest to the candidate or ask the candidate to give his or her recommendations based on an analysis of a real corporate issue provided by the employer. The latter approach is a particularly useful way of evaluating the candidate's ability to identify the crucial points from a range of complex information and communicate the points effectively to the assessors.

It is essential that the employer considers what criteria or competencies the presentation exercise will test. It should ensure that the presentation topic provides the scope to assess this information. The assessors should allow adequate time at the end of the presentation to ask questions and probe the issues put forward in the candidate's presentation. Once the candidate has completed his or her presentation, the assessors should assess and score the presentation in accordance with the job-related criteria or competencies associated with the role. An example of a presentation topic designed for an HR manager role where the successful candidate will be required to establish the HR function could be: "How would you go about starting up the HR function, and what would your main priorities be in the first three months?"

Assessment centres

An assessment centre is not a physical place but a process whereby candidates undergo a range of selection tests over a specified period of time, typically either a day or a half day. Using an assessment centre is considered to be the most effective selection method as it combines several of the assessment tools available; this approach provides the employer with the opportunity to measure candidates' performance multiple times and from a number of different perspectives. An assessment centre allows the employer to view the candidates interacting in a group environment and on an individual basis. The centre enables the employer to observe actual behaviour rather than relying solely on evidence of past experience or predicting what the candidates might do in a hypothetical situation.

Assessment centres are costly and resource intensive. Therefore, many organisations use them to appoint only to senior-level roles or when they are recruiting a specialist group of new staff, for example during a graduate recruitment campaign.

Designing an assessment centre

When the employer designs an assessment centre, it needs to decide which recruitment selection tools to include. The choice of selection tools depends on the type and level of seniority of the role, as well as the number of candidates who will be taking part in the assessment centre. An assessment centre typically has between six and 12 candidates, with a ratio of one assessor for every two candidates.

Interviews, psychometric tests, work-sample tests and presentations are some of the useful tools to include in an assessment centre environment. There are other useful assessments:

  • Role-plays: These normally involve the candidate playing the part of the employee in the role for which he or she is being assessed. A trained individual plays another character to create a work situation that feels as realistic as possible. For example, for a senior call-centre role the candidate could be asked to deal with a difficult customer-service situation, and the trained individual could play the part of a disgruntled customer. For a managerial role, the candidate could be asked to deal with an employee who has a high level of sickness absence. Assessors should observe the candidate's performance when dealing with the situation to gain an indication of his or her performance in this kind of work scenario. There is no guarantee that the way that the candidate reacts and manages the situation in a role-play will be identical to the way that he or she manages a similar situation at work, but the exercise can help to predict future job performance.
  • Candidate-led discussion groups: These normally involve the employer asking the candidates to discuss an actual job-related problem in a group setting. The assessors score how the candidates interact with one other and the performance of each candidate under relevant competencies, for example "leadership", "teamworking", "negotiation skills " and "communication skills". Because the candidates know that the other individuals are applying for the same role as they are, discussion groups can create a competitive environment. To ensure that the exercise is as positive and productive as possible, the employer should ensure that the candidates are aware of the skills and behaviours that are being observed during the exercise. Employers should be aware that each group will have its own dynamic, and that one candidate may perform well as a leader in one group but not as well in another group where a stronger candidate takes the lead.
  • In-tray exercises: These exercises involve giving the candidate a number of different pieces of work to complete within a set timescale. The tasks should be similar to those that would be found in the in-tray of the postholder to make the exercise as realistic as possible. The candidate's performance should be assessed against a number of different competencies, for example "written communication skills", "problem-solving" and "prioritisation skills".

Assessment centre "wash-up" sessions

An assessment centre "wash-up" session is when all the assessors meet to compare the scores for the candidates across the various exercises. The assessors should agree on a final rating for each candidate and decide which candidates should progress to the next stage of the selection process, for example the final interview. Alternatively, if the assessment centre is the final selection stage, the assessors should meet to decide which candidate(s) should be appointed. A typical wash-up session involves:

  • appointing a chairperson to chair the wash-up session;
  • all assessors reporting back on the scores that they have awarded to each candidate for the exercises that they observed;
  • assessors providing evidence to support their scores;
  • assessors discussing the scores and agreeing on a final rating for each candidate; and
  • making a final selection decision or deciding which candidates should progress to the next selection stage.

The employer should provide unsuccessful candidates with comprehensive feedback on their performance, because they will have invested a lot of time and energy in attending the centre. The employer may decide to provide candidates with their scores for individual tests or an overall score from the whole assessment centre. Either way, the scores should be supported with qualitative feedback and examples of good performance where possible.

Assessment centre case study

A retail organisation wanted to recruit a sales director and ran an assessment centre for six candidates using three assessors. The assessment centre was designed to observe candidates' performance against the eight competencies that had been identified as essential for the role, which were:

  • leadership;
  • financial acumen;
  • relationship building;
  • influencing;
  • decision-making;
  • problem-solving;
  • communication skills; and
  • strategic thinking.
Selection test

Competencies assessed

Competency-based interview All
Psychometric personality test Financial acumen, problem-solving, influencing,
strategic thinking and communication skills
Psychometric ability test
(critical numerical reasoning)
Financial acumen
Candidate-led discussion group Influencing, problem-solving and
communication skills
Role-play Influencing, problem-solving and
communication skills
Presentation Strategic thinking and communication skills

At the end of the day, the three assessors met for the wash-up session and discussed the scores for each selection test, providing examples to support their scores. The assessors agreed a final score for each candidate and determined which three candidates should progress to the final selection stage comprising a face-to-face interview. The assessors gave detailed feedback to the three unsuccessful candidates.

Using agencies for selection

Employers sometimes use recruitment agencies and executive search agencies (also known as headhunters) when recruiting employees. In addition to sourcing potential candidates, agencies can provide support to the employer by screening and shortlisting candidates and conducting initial interviews, particularly where an advertisement has attracted a large number of applicants. This early selection work can save the employer a considerable amount of time and energy.

However, recruitment agencies can be very costly, and employers need to ensure that using them represents value for money. Typically, agencies charge a fee equivalent to a certain percentage of the candidate's annual salary on the successful placement of a candidate. Agencies are often open to negotiation on the level of this fee, particularly if the employer is considering making the agency a preferred supplier. Employers need to ensure that the fees are negotiated and agreed before the recruitment and selection process starts, or they may be liable for the full fee. For headhunting assignments, agencies often require a percentage of the fee upfront, and a further percentage on presentation of the shortlisted candidates, with the final percentage payable on the successful placement of the candidate. This means that the employer could be liable to pay the agency a hefty percentage with no guarantee that a suitable candidate will be found and appointed.

The employer should meet with several recruitment agencies that have a good track record before making a decision on which agency to use. Consultants who have researched the organisation and who show a genuine interest in finding the right person for the role will normally find more suitable candidates for the vacancy and save the employer time when reviewing shortlisted candidates.

The employer should ensure that it communicates clearly to the agency the requirements of the organisation and the vacant role. A meeting with the agency at the employer's offices will help the agency to gain an insight into the organisation. Providing a clear, well-written job description and person specification for the role and other relevant corporate information will help the agency to present the employer with the most suitable pool of candidates for the vacancy. If the agency undertakes initial selection activities, for example screening and/or shortlisting, the employer should provide it with the shortlisting criteria and competency requirements for the post. Following any initial selection activities, the agency should provide the employer with a detailed brief on how each candidate on its suggested shortlist meets the essential shortlisting criteria.

Making the final selection decision

The final stage of the selection process is making the decision about which candidate(s) to appoint. This is a critical stage of the process. The employer should first determine which personnel should be involved in making the final selection decision. Typically, the panel should involve the individuals who conducted the final stage of the selection process, and include the line manager (regardless of whether or not he or she was part of the final selection stage).

The panel of assessors should make a final selection decision using the scores allocated to candidates for each job-related criterion or competency, in accordance with the weighting applied to each one. It is unlikely that all of the selection criteria or competencies will have equal weighting. It is important for the assessors to base the final selection decision on objectively scored assessments. Assessors should avoid subjective feelings about whether or not an individual is right for the job as these feelings can lead to bias or discrimination.

It is normally clear from this process which candidate(s) should be appointed but, on some occasions, the final appointment decision may involve a tie between two candidates based on their selection scores. In this situation, the assessors should review the scores allocated to both candidates from all the tests to verify whether or not the scores are accurate. If necessary, if the organisation has carried out a personality test as part of the selection process, the assessors could revisit the test results to assess which candidate would work best in the work environment. Another option is to carry out a second interivew to gather additional information from both candidates and/or gain a second opinion on candidates' suitability from other members of staff and managers who did not interview candidates the first time round. If the panel still cannot make a final appointment decision after this process has been completed, it may be necessary for it to go with a majority vote, or the line manager could be the most appropriate person to make the final decision. Alternatively, in larger organisations it may be possible to create an additional role and appoint both candidates to avoid losing an excellent candidate.

Equal opportunities in selection

Employers should be aware of the importance of equal opportunities in the recruitment and selection process. A candidate may lodge a discrimination claim following the recruitment process even if he or she was unsuccessful and was never employed by the recruiting organisation. There is no limit on compensation for successful discrimination claims.

Although much of the discrimination or bias that occurs during selection is unintentional and unconscious, this is no defence legally. Therefore, it is important for employers to put in place procedures to eliminate discrimination from the selection process. It is also important to select the best person for the role regardless of whether or not he or she has a protected characteristic. The selection process should be accessible to all individuals and should not place individuals with a protected characteristic at a disadvantage.

There are two types of discrimination: direct and indirect. Direct discrimination occurs where, because of a protected characteristic (for example sex, race or disability), one individual treats another less favourably than he or she treats, or would treat, other persons without the protected characteristic. Indirect discrimination occurs where the employer applies a provision, criterion or practice that puts, or would put, people with a particular protected characteristic at a disadvantage, and the employer cannot justify this.

To limit the risk of discrimination in the selection process, the employer should examine every stage of the process to ensure that there are no discriminatory factors. For example, application forms should include a detachable section that contains the equal opportunities monitoring information and any other personal information, for example the candidate's name. The employer should remove this part of the form before the screening process and allocate a reference number to the form. This means that the individuals who carry out the screening and shortlisting processes do not have access to information about candidates' personal characteristics or circumstances, so this information cannot influence the selection process.

Employers should train employees involved in selection to understand how conscious and unconscious bias can affect the process, and how stereotypes influence decision-making. For example, some managers might not consider a man for a caring role because they hold a perception about male attributes.

Employers should be aware that it may be necessary to make reasonable adjustments during the selection process if a candidate has a disability, for example to ensure that the candidate has access to the assessment room. If using tests as part of selection, employers should review them for potential challenges for disabled candidates to ensure that the tests are inclusive. Tests should be relevant to the role and the employer should be mindful of different health conditions, disabilities and impairments to avoid disability discrimination. Tests should be inclusive in design and practical for all to take part in, and employers should make reasonable adjustments to them where necessary. For example, employers may need to give more time to a dyslexic candidate to take an online test, provide online tests in alternative formats if required by a candidate with visual impairments, or agree lower pass rates in certain circumstances.

To help avoid discrimination against candidates of different faiths and religion during the selection process, when arranging dates for assessment centres and interviews, employers could avoid scheduling them on the dates of established religious festivals. If an employer is using an external venue for a selection activity, it should be sensitive to people who, because of their faith, do not want to go somewhere that serves alcohol.

Using interviews as a selection tool can result in discrimination being introduced into the process. There is a risk in an interview situation that the attitudes and opinions of the interviewers will creep into the interview questions or that they will be influenced by non-relevant and potentially discriminatory issues. The employer should provide training for interviewers about the type of questions that could be perceived as discriminatory and should be avoided. For example, questions about how a candidate would cope working alongside, or reporting to, a member of the opposite sex, someone belonging to different racial group or a younger or older colleague should be avoided. Candidates should not be asked for information on marital status or marriage plans; ages of children and childcare arrangements; general family commitments and/or domestic arrangements; partner's occupation and mobility; or actual or potential absences from work for family reasons. Questions around age or date of birth should also be avoided, including questions around dates the candidate attended school, university or started work. If a candidate has a disability, the employer should not assume that he or she is unable to perform the role. The interviewer should not focus on the applicant's condition by asking how the applicant manages his or her impairment. For example, asking a candidate how she intends to get to work on time if he or she has a mobility impairment, or enquiring about a candidate's sickness absence levels in his or her current role could be discriminatory and will not be helpful in assessing the candidate's ability to perform in the role. It is essential that the interview process relies on objective, job-related criteria to assess candidates.

The employer can use the equal opportunities monitoring data to track candidates' progress through the recruitment and selection process. The organisation can produce regular reports to monitor whether or not candidates with a protected characteristic are being disadvantaged during the recruitment and selection process and, if they are, take action to address any bias.

Providing feedback to unsuccessful candidates

HR or the recruiting manager should inform all unsuccessful candidates who have taken part in the selection process that the organisation is not offering them the job. Where it receives a large number of applications for a post, the employer may be able only to acknowledge receipt of the applications and inform candidates that they will receive a further communication only if they are shortlisted for the next selection stage. However, the candidates who are shortlisted and take part in the selection process will have invested a lot of time and energy in applying for the role, so it is good practice for the employer to offer them feedback on the reasons why they were unsuccessful.

The feedback should be based on the job-related criteria and competencies required for the post. Providing written feedback helps to reduce the risk of the individual who is giving the feedback becoming drawn into a lengthy conversation with the candidate and effectively interviewing him or her for the role all over again. The employer can provide feedback verbally, but the individual providing the feedback needs to be careful that he or she refers solely to the selection criteria, providing examples to support the feedback where possible.

The recruiting manager should wait until the preferred candidate has accepted the role before informing the second- or third-choice candidates about the decision. This should not be more than a few days after the job has been offered to the first-choice candidate. The employer should keep any uninformed candidates updated about timescales.

Record-keeping

The employer should ensure that it keeps accurate records of each stage of the selection process. These records could be required as evidence in the event of a future employment tribunal claim by an unsuccessful candidate that he or she was not offered the job because of discrimination. Most employment tribunal claims need to be lodged within three months of the discriminatory act, so the employer needs to retain records for between three and six months after completion of the selection process. The employer should store the records securely and dispose of them confidentially when the time limit expires.

As soon as possible after the event, assessors should write up notes of the various selection techniques used, including the outcomes of selection decisions, interviews and assessment centres to ensure that the employer records and keeps accurate data. The employer should ensure that the interviewers record only information that is relevant to the selection criteria. Under the General Data Protection Regulation, candidates can request to see copies of interview notes and other information recorded as part of the recruitment and selection process, so it is important that the information recorded is accurate, objective and related to the post.

Case study

A research organisation regularly holds recruitment campaigns for project assistants who need a range of project management skills. The usual selection methods used by the employer are screening, shortlisting and selection interviewing. However, it has experienced problems related to the poor performance of several appointed candidates once they have started working in the role.

On further investigation, it becomes clear that the main areas of underperformance relate to problem-solving, communication skills and the ability to work under pressure. The employer decides to pilot the use of ability tests during future recruitment campaigns to see if the tests help to improve the performance level of new project assistants.

The employer develops a selection test to assess the three competency areas of problem-solving, communication skills and the ability to work under pressure. The test comprises three multiple-choice exercises: verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning. The employer administers the tests as part of the next selection process and follows good practice, including using a trained assessor. This represents an effective selection approach as all of the candidates are tested within an hour, and the results are available quickly and are easily comparable. The employer invites those candidates who scored well in the tests to the interview stage of the selection process.

Following the six-month pilot, almost 100 candidates take the tests, with 11 candidates being appointed to project assistant roles. The employer compares the scores from the tests with the performance of the project assistants and identifies a positive correlation between the two. The employer decides to continue to use the psychometric test to support the selection process for project assistant roles.

Trends in recruitment and selection

A significant number of employers review the social media accounts of prospective employees and are putting in place safeguards when reviewing them: